Even Garbage Is Under Threat From the Coronavirus' Impact on the Economy

A truck full of recyclables unloads its contents onto the "tipping floor" at Recology's processing facility in San Francisco on April 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

They come once a week to haul away your trash, scoop up your recyclables and in many locations, pick up your compost. But as the coronavirus pandemic and statewide shelter-in-place orders have shut down businesses and caused millions of layoffs, garbage collectors are worried about their ability to keep the trucks rolling.

In a letter sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom in early April, 40 industry stakeholders, including large waste haulers and the Teamsters union, warned that they will soon need support from the state to continue providing solid waste collection services.

That’s because garbage companies are losing significant revenue from the sudden drop in business activity — revenue they rely on to fund their operations, from fueling and fixing trucks to keeping employees paid.

Around the state, 10-20% of commercial accounts have been canceled or significantly reduced, said Eric Potashner, vice president at Recology, which serves areas from Sacramento to Monterey and which co-signed the letter to the governor. And while weekly garbage collection is mandated by state law, garbage companies are expected to figure out how to stay profitable and in business.

Potashner warned that at the current rate “the industry will start to get challenged in terms of being able to continue to provide the service at the level they're doing right now.”

“Basically, everybody still needs their waste and recycling service, whether or not they can pay the bill,” he said.

Recology employees separate garbage from recyclables at a processing facility at Pier 96 in San Francisco on April 9, 2020.
Recology employees separate garbage from recyclables at a processing facility at Pier 96 in San Francisco on April 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

So far, the guidance from public health officials suggests that collecting garbage doesn’t pose a major risk to workers as long as they follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines, including frequent hand washing and disinfecting.

“Keeping our workforce healthy through this pandemic is most important because if we had an outbreak ... among our employee base, it would significantly impact our ability to serve the city,” Potashner said. “That would create a whole other set of public health issues.”

While garbage collection is included on the state’s list of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers, there have been some layoffs, said John Bouchard, a representative for Teamsters Local 350, which represents workers at almost every garbage collection company in the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

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The drop in garbage coming from businesses has meant that jobs for those who work at transfer stations — where garbage is amassed before being trucked to landfills — and transfer truck drivers have also been reduced, Bouchard said.

“What we're trying to do is secure funding from the state to help support the employers, because in turn, that supports our members,” Bouchard said. “These companies are losing money and we need to do something about that, to make sure they can continue to operate and function and keep everybody working and provide the service that's required to keep the garbage off the streets.”

Recyclers Take Extra Precautions During Coronavirus

Recology employee and union shop steward Ayanna Banks puts on three layers of gloves before going to work on a sorting line at Recology's processing facility in San Francisco on April 9, 2020.
Recology employee and union shop steward Ayanna Banks puts on three layers of gloves before going to work on a sorting line at Recology's processing facility in San Francisco on April 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Then there’s recycling, which is a large part of the waste stream in California. Even with the latest in high-tech machinery, recycling operations require a crew of workers to help sort a wide stream of glass, paper, plastic and metal.

At Recology’s San Francisco sorting facility, which occupies a sprawling 200,000 square feet on Pier 96, workers are being spaced farther apart, while some production lines have been slowed, said Robert Reed, Recology public relations manager. Vending machines that dispense gloves and other safety gear have been available for several years, and during the current public health crisis, workers are taking extra precautions.

On a recent morning, Ayanna Banks prepared for her shift as a sorter. She donned a hard hat and a face mask and layered on three sets of protective gloves.

Even under normal circumstances, the work has its hazards — conveyor belts speed along, laden with recyclables mixed together with TV cables, bed sheets and syringes, to name a few of the items that don’t belong. Everywhere there are heavy machines, some with lightning-fast robotic arms, booming and humming.

Now, Banks says, going to work adds the additional risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.

“The virus, we don't know what it's on — cardboard or metal or anything. So we're risking ourselves every day,” Banks said.

Still, Banks, who has worked at Recology for 20 years and is a Teamsters shop steward, said the job of processing nearly 650 tons of recyclables daily is important for both public health and sanitation and the environment.

“We're out here making sure that the city of San Francisco, everything, is going as normal, even in this crisis right now,” she said. “We play a big role in the economy and in the atmosphere and the Earth.”

In fact, recyclers around the state say the need for recyclables hasn’t gone away with coronavirus: Recycled paper is needed for things like toilet paper and cardboard shipping boxes — both of which have been in high demand as people shelter in place and do more online shopping.

Large Drop in Supply of Recyclables

Conveyor belts speed along, laden with recyclables mixed together with TV cables, bed sheets, and syringes, to name a few of the items that don’t belong, at Recology's processing facility in San Francisco on April 9, 2020.
Conveyor belts speed along, laden with recyclables mixed together with TV cables, bed sheets and syringes, to name a few of the items that don’t belong, at Recology's processing facility in San Francisco on April 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

While recycling operations are still going strong at Recology, that’s not the case everywhere. Many buy-back centers — where anyone can redeem bottles and cans for cash — have been shut down around the state because they are high-touch and high-interaction points, said Rich Costa, director of procurement and sustainability for major plastics recycler CarbonLite.

CarbonLite processes recycled plastic in Riverside and sells it to bottle manufacturers, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Niagara Bottling, and typically handles 8-9 million pounds of #1 plastic (or PET) bottles per month from buy-back centers, Costa said.

That supply has dropped by 60% since California's shelter-in-place order began, he said.

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While most counties are continuing curbside recycling programs, a few counties in Southern California are collecting, but not processing the recyclables, according to industry publication Waste Dive.

Many recyclables are likely ending up in landfills, Costa said.

“We're gonna lose all those recyclables forever,” he said. “That's the last thing we want to have happen.”

If CarbonLite and other recyclers can’t provide enough clean, recycled plastic, bottle manufacturers will only have less incentive to keep using recycled plastic.

Costa’s plea to California residents? Please keep recycling your plastic bottles and other recyclables: “We need them!”

How You Can Help

Here’s a list of tips for how you can help:

  • Conserve space in your recycling bin: Break down cardboard boxes and flatten aluminum cans
  • Keep bins closed and don’t overstuff them. Don’t leave items lying next to bins. All of this helps drivers pick up your materials
  • Keep recyclables “loose” — that is, don’t put them into garbage bags, just straight into the bins
  • Don’t put plastic bags in recycling bins — they jam recycling machinery
  • Empty, and if possible, wash containers — the cleaner they are, the easier they are to sort and recycle
  • Do put your garbage into bags
  • In areas where municipal compost is accepted, keep composting
  • Finally, check out Recology’s guide on how to be “Better at the Bin

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